BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government announced Wednesday that it's taken initial steps to rebuild the famed Golden Dome shrine in Samarra, whose destruction two years ago helped unleash sectarian warfare between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
It will be years before the shrine, which for nearly a millennium had been a focal point of Shiite worship, is restored. But Gen. Rashid Felaiyah, the Interior Ministry's commander of operations in Samarra, said workers had begun going through the rubble of the mosque Monday in search of historically significant pieces that should be incorporated into the rebuilding.
A coalition forces spokesman, Maj. Winfield Danielson, called the work "a step toward healing the sectarian wounds."
But many Iraqis are less certain that the project will do much to tamp down the sectarian violence that exploded after unknown men invaded the shrine, known as al Askariya, on Feb. 22, 2006, and planted explosives that blew away its dome. Last June, bombers toppled the remaining minarets.
Samarra remains a conflicted area. Security officials announced Tuesday that at least 55 bodies had been found in a mass grave near the city, and three gunmen killed a Sunni cleric Wednesday.
Shiites were skeptical that they'd be likely to visit the shrine anytime soon. It houses the tombs of Imam Ali al Hadi, who died in A.D. 868, and his son, Imam al Askari, who died in 874. Both are descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.
"It's not safe to go to Samarra," said Muhanad al Timimi, a Shiite who lives in northern Baghdad. "The building has no relationship to sectarian violence so it cannot reduce it."
How many people died in the months of violence after the bombing is unknown. In the days afterward, dozens of Sunni mosques were attacked, and militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr began targeting Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad. Tens of thousands of families were forced from their homes in ethnic cleansing that affected both sects.
Sunni and Shiite groups continue to vie for control in Samarra, a traditionally Sunni city. On Wednesday, three gunmen killed Essam Felaih, a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq and the imam of the Sunni al Mukhtar mosque in central Samarra, police said.
The mass grave was discovered after police raided a stronghold of al Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni group, in the al Jazeera area northwest of Samarra. Ten Iraqis who were freed in the raid provided information that led to the grave's discovery, said Colonel Mazin Younis Hassan, the head of the U.S.-allied awakening council militia in Samarra.
The United Nations agency UNESCO, which had designated the shrine an "endangered world heritage site," said the recovery phase of the reconstruction project would last 10 months and that rebuilding the shrine would cost at least $8.4 million.
Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwafiq al Rubaie said that reconstructing the shrine would take much longer because it was a "piece of art."
Safa Hashim, a Shiite engineer who lives in Samarra, said he was pleased to hear that the government had started work on the shrine.
"I am so eager to visit the shrine," he said. Then, referring to Shiite religious figures, he recalled that it's easier to visit a shrine in Iran than those a few miles away.
"They say the imam who is buried in Iran is a stranger, but I say the one buried in Iraq is the stranger now, because we can't even visit him," he said.
(Lannen reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondents Hassan al Jubouri, Laith Hammoudi and Hussein Khadhim contributed to this report.)